Africa’s Art Deco Capital

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has just been designated as a World Heritage Site for its unique collection of Art Deco buildings, which UNESCO calls “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. (And for which the city is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami”.)

Asmara’s architecture is a legacy of Italian rule, which stretched from 1889 until the end of the Second World War. Italy’s determination to be a colonial power, like its stronger European rivals, drove it to pioneer new and radical styles far from the constraints of European sensibilities (indeed, many of these structures were heavily criticized at the time). It became known as a paradise for bold Italian architects, and by the 1930s the capital had the nickname of “Little Rome” because half of its residents were Italian.

Unfortunately, Eritrea’s government is among the most repressive and totalitarian in the world, and there is much concern about its capacity to preserve these structures, to say nothing of the treatment of its citizens.

Info and photos courtesy of the New York Times and UNESCO

Bolivia’s Remarkable Neo-Andino Style

While there remains tens of millions of people of indigenous descent throughout Latin America, much of their culture has been forgotten, deliberately repressed, or socially marginalized by the Spanish-influenced mainstream. Thankfully, a vast corpus of native languages, customs, folk beliefs, music, and visual art remains influential in many Latin American countries, and in some cases are even thriving. But architecture was generally absent from the long list of indigenous influences that, to varying degrees, remain prevalent (knowingly or not) in Latin American culture.

Hence my surprise, and subsequent delight, at a recent article in Remezcla that explores a fascinating new architectural movement in Bolivia inspired by the indigenous Aymara (who make up the majority of the country’s population, yet have long been marginalized). Centered in the sprawling metropolis of El Alto, which is located over 13,000 feet above sea level, this Andean or “Neo-Andino” style is like nothing else I have ever seen, combining modernist geometric patterns with the ornate and colorful motifs of the Amarya.

The leader of this eclectic architectural revolution — the “Aymara version of Michelangelo”, as some publications have called him — is a mostly self-taught forty-one-year-old architect named Freddy Mamani, who was inspired to “inject some color” into El Alto’s drab cityscape. The popularity of his style, especially among the rising middle class, reflects a cultural renaissance among indigenous Bolivians, who until recently were largely marginalized both socially and politically despite their numbers.

Remezcla has an illuminating interview with Mamani, whose works have already been the subject of a book, song, and several news reports, and can be seen in other cities in Bolivia, as well as in Peru and Brazil. It is great to see something new emerge in a global architectural scene that has largely become monocultural, with cities across the globe adopting more or less similar Western modernist motifs. It is even more exciting to witness a resurgence in one of the world’s richest and hitherto repressed cultures. As more Latin Americans of indigenous descent finally get their due economic, social, and political opportunities, we can expect to see more of their long-neglected culture gain a platform.

The 25 Most Audacious Megaprojects in the World

Since I find myself (fortunately) busy with some well needed freelance work, I have decided to keep things a bit light today; if you are similarly fascinated by humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation and grandiosity, check out Popular Mechanics’ fascinating list of some of the world’s largest and technically-challenges projects under construction.

From near-stratospheric skyscrapers, to valley-spanning bridges and even whole cities, these infrastructural marvels reflect the latest developments in both technology and human vision — to say nothing of the endless appetite for economic growth and global prestige alike.

It is very telling that most of these projects take place in the developing world, particularly China, though quite a few are being undertaken in the industrialized world, including the United States. A more cynical and cautious observer might worry about the environmental impact of these endeavors, or whether they are a good use of funds in light of the global economic slowdown; such concerns are well founded, though for now I am content to see what technological feats our species is capable of, and how the fruits of such projects — if any — will bear out in the coming years.

 

Taking Environmental Sustainability to the Next Level

It is one thing to design buildings that can minimize impact on the environment. But what about creating structures that can play a regenerative role, contributing positively and directly to surrounded ecosystems? CityLab explores this intriguing and recent concept:

The idea is not to be satisfied with efficiency for its own sake. Regenerative design aspires to an active participation in ecosystems all around. A green roof is pleasant for humans and reduces energy consumption in the building underneath; a regenerative green roof not only does that but is intentionally designed to support butterflies or birds that have otherwise vacated an urban area.

Capturing rainwater, recycling graywater, and treating wastewater on-site are all great for reducing overall water consumption. But in regenerative design, these strategies are only optimal if they recharge the local aquifer as well.

Similarly, building materials shouldn’t only be viewed in the context of minimizing damage and the consumption of resources; they should be put to work for the planet. The use of wood thus becomes at its core a carbon sequestration strategy. The carbon soaked up by older trees—harvested in sustainable forestry practices, cutting them down before they fall and rot and release emissions back into the atmosphere—gets taken out of the cycle, permanently tucked away as beams and pillars and walls.

Given the novelty of the idea, there are no working models just yet. The article highlights the closest example of a regenerative system: the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver (pictured).

Waste from the toilets is harvested to be mixed with food waste composting, while the water is separated out and purified for use in irrigation. Rammed-earth building blocks were formed by dredging ponds on the site, and the deeper water in turn led to a healthier ecosystem. The equivalent of staircases encourage all kinds of critters to get up to the green roof and feed; coyotes have been spotted up there.

Given the twin trends of rapid urbanization and equally rapid environmental degradation, this is definitely idea well worth exploring and investing in further. What are your thoughts?

The Most Metal Thing I Have Ever Heard

According to CityLab, London almost had a “Death Pyramid” — a towering mausoleum that would have interred around 5 million residents.

In the 1820s, the architect [Thomas Wilson] proposed to build a colossal pyramid called the Metropolitan Sepulchre. Sited for Primrose Hill, today a park area in North London, the necropolis was designed to alleviate the overpopulation of London’s graveyards while adding a looming monument to mortality to the city’s skyline.

With the Metropolitan Sepulchre, Wilson envisioned a honeycomb of catacombs, each one capable of holding up to 24 coffins. The whole structure would have occupied a plot 18 acres in area; at more than 90 stories tall, it would have easily eclipsed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

While it may have been inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza, this necropolis was meant to be a true city of the dead, not just a palace for a pharaoh. The British pyramid would have served as the final resting grounds for some 5 million Londoners had the city gone with Wilson.

As the article notes, such “vertical cemeteries” are catching on throughout the world’s fast-growing cities, from Mexico City and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. As humanity continues to urbanize like never before, perhaps we can expect more audacious necropolises bestriding our modern skyscrapers.

How To Build The Ideal City

As human society rapidly urbanizes to an unprecedented degree — for the first time in history, more people live in urban areas than in rural ones, a trend that is advancing quickly — how we design and maintain our cities matters more than ever. Even in the developed world, creating cities that are conducive to human health and well-being can be a challenge.

In a new video from the School of LifeHow to Make an Attractive CityLondon-based Swiss writer  and philosopher Alain de Botton offers an interesting six-point manifesto on the need for making beauty a priority in urban architecture and design. Check out it out below.

While practical concerns like sewage disposal, electrical grids, and the like certainly matter, our social species requires environments that promote psychological stimulation and community cohesion. Check out a quick summary of this manifesto from Slate here. What are your thoughts?

Building With Compassion

As I was editing Wikipedia, I came across an update on the news section of its homepage: Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect, just won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious award in the field. I’ve heard of the prize before, but never its newest recipient. After looking him up, I came across an excellent TED Talk he gave about creating emergency structures out of sustainable and recycled material (he’s apparently the only architect that works regularly with paper as a medium). It’s quite a treat, so check it out below.

Ban’s unique approach to structure and materials, as well as the humanitarian underpinnings of work, were cited in his recent prize. Personally, I think it’s well deserved.

Here is the sample work highlighted for his prize, the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a museum located in France and completed in 2010. Personally, I find it to be a striking and effective combination of elegance and functionality; what say you?

 

 

8 Amazing Examples of Ramps Blended Into Stairs

TwistedSifter

 

Ramps can sometimes present challenges for designers and architects. They are useful (and sometimes required by law) for strollers, wheelchairs and any device with wheels for that matter. Aesthetically, they can sometimes be cumbersome and out of place with the rest of the design. In the gallery below we explore a series of ramps that have been beautifully blended into sets of stairs.

Some of you may wonder about these designs not being ‘to code’ as handrails are not present. Unfortunately I am not well versed in building standards and codes, especially since they vary from country to country. If you are familiar with codes and regulations, we’d love your opinions in the comments! I did take a quick peek at the U.S Department of Justice’s 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design and found the following in terms of regulations as it pertains to handrails in the United States:

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The Boldness and Ugly-Beauty of Communist Architecture.

For all the ills of their totalitarian brand of communism, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites engaged in some remarkable experimentation in architecture, producing some of the most fascinating and controversial buildings around. Depending on your perspective, they’re either something out of a science-fiction story, or an Orwellian, dystopian nightmare (perhaps a bit of both?). You decide.

In case it’s unclear, that’s the former headquarters of the Soviet Georgian Ministry of Highways. Charming.

While you’re at it, check out a selection of similarly strange buildings done in the aptly named “Brutalist” style. I find their ugliness to be rather charming for some reason, although I can’t imagine what a whole city built in such a manner would look like. Apparently, the only thing saving this bizarre displays of creative boldness (or madness, depending on your perspective) are practical concerns about money and urban planning.

Trellick Tower, London. At least it’s functional.